The Recluse Series: Gladys Deacon

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Gather ‘round for another recluse tale. Meet Gladys Deacon, a 1900s socialite who posed for Boldini, had affairs with royalty (she once claimed she’d “slept with every prime minister in Europe and many kings”), and eventually locked herself in a room with a loaded gun by her side…

Born in Paris to wealthy American citizens Edward and Florence Deacon, Gladys had a traumatic childhood. Her mother, a socialite who counted among her friends the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin, started an affair with a Frenchman named Emile Abeille. When Gladys’s father learned of it, he fatally shot Abeille and went to prison for a year.

Upon his release, he filed for divorce, won custody of Gladys and her sisters, and took them to the United States, where he died from syphilis in 1901. Now 20 years old, Gladys returned to Paris. “I never saw a girl,” Marcel Proust wrote of her, “with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm.” She captivated everyone she met.

Gladys had long been obsessed with the American railroad heirless Consuelo Vanderbilt and her husband Charles Spencer-Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough. As a teenager, she’d fantasized about marrying the Duke herself, and even met him and Consuelo once during a visit to London with her mother (both Consuelo and the Duke were impressed, and Gladys and Consuelo began a friendship). So when Gladys received an invitation to stay with the couple at Blenheim Palace in London, she eagerly accepted. Consuelo had just given birth and wanted Gladys to keep her company.

Consuelo’s marriage to the Duke was one of convenience. The Vanderbilts wanted the title “Duchess” for their daughter, and the Duke wanted her fortune. During Gladys’s stay in London, she and the Duke began a torrid, decades-long affair and he eventually divorced Consuelo in 1921. At age 40, Gladys realized her teenaged dream: She and the Duke got married.

But Gladys’s wedding day was marred by her greatest regret: a botched plastic surgery. Even as her looks were celebrated across Europe (and as she herself commissioned paintings of her striking blue-green eyes to decorate the palace), Gladys worried that her beauty was fading. Her main concern was her nose, which she believed had a “kink.” Longing for a “Grecian profile,” she had paraffin wax injected into her nose. But the wax migrated and settled in her chin, leaving her with a permanently bulky jaw. Everyone in society gossiped about the change. Devastated, she ordered all mirrors to be removed from her rooms.

As she sequestered herself in the palace, resisting her husband’s invitations to socialize, Gladys found an outlet for her boredom: She began breeding Blenheim spaniels. Soon dozens of dogs were racing around the palace, ruining the expensive rugs and furnishings and annoying the Duke. The couple’s fights grew more frequent and volatile—so much so that Gladys kept a loaded gun in her bedside table.

The Duke took her threats seriously. In 1933, he fired Gladys’s staff and fled the palace, leaving his wife alone there for two years before evicting her. She moved to a London flat owned by the Duke until he cut off the gas and electricity. Before the couple could divorce, the Duke died. Gladys then settled at an isolated farmhouse in the remote village of Mixbury. She brought with her a menagerie of dogs and some mementos from her old life, including her portrait by Boldini.

Her only visitor was her loyal Polish servant, who came once a day. Gladys lowered a key from a second-story window so he could let himself in. On her better days, she’d regale him with stories about Russian grand dukes kissing first her fingertips, then her hand, and then up the length of her arm.

Occasionally she allowed herself a walk around the village at night. She had no teeth, matted hair, and wore old Wellington boots studded with patches. The neighborhood boys thought she was a witch and threw rocks at her home. Eventually, in 1962, one of her nephews had her committed to a psychiatric hospital. She ignored her fellow inmates, calling them “mads.” Once, when biographer Hugo Vickers came to visit, Gladys said, “Rodin liked to precipitate himself on every woman he met. You know, hands all over you.” Hugo leaned in. “Ah! You knew him, then?” he asked, but she went silent.

She died in her sleep in 1977. At an auction of her belongings the following year, her jewelry alone (including a tiara that had one been part of the Russian imperial jewels), raised £452,755.

The photo is a self-portrait in 1928, after her botched surgery.